Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Elizabeth Johnson Case and Teaching Authority of Bishops: Further Reflections

A definition of Catholicism based primarily on the teaching authority of the bishops is altogether too thin.  This is particularly true when this definition is asserted self-referentially by the bishops and is dependent almost exclusively on their assertion that they alone are the teachers of the church.  This definition of what is central to the Catholic tradition does not compel the assent of large numbers of followers of Christ in that tradition today.  It does not form the centerpiece for any spiritually compelling or coherent practice of the Catholic faith for increasing numbers of Catholics at this point in history.

I'm aware that there is a strong tradition from early in Christian history that supports such an understanding of Catholicism--if, that is, we ignore the complications created for that tradition by the biblical and historical evidence from the early church about which Raymond Brown and others write, which indicates that the equation of bishops with apostles in the simplistic and direct way to which that tradition appeals falsifies history.  And as I noted in my posting about Ruff yesterday, one of the primary ways in which that oversimplification of the biblical evidence and evidence from the early church betrays the tradition is in how it ignores the teaching function of others within the community called by the Spirit to reflect and teach about what it means to be faithful Catholic followers of Jesus within the world over the course of history.

But any particular tradition within the Christian community, no matter how venerable, always has to be normed by what might be called the great tradition: this is the tradition of discipleship.  The single most important tradition--the one for which the church was called by the Spirit into existence and upon which its claim to continued existence depends--is the tradition of calling each new generation of believers to walk as disciples in the way of Jesus.  To walk with Jesus to Calvary and resurrection through their lives of discipleship in the world.

The bishops retain credibility as authoritative teachers within the Christian community only when their exercise of teaching authority is clearly normed by the greatest tradition of all within the Christian community: by the tradition of discipleship.  The bishops can function credibly as authoritative teachers only when they themselves live as disciples of Jesus in such a way that their witness to the great tradition on whose existence the church depends is clear, unambiguous, and spiritually vital for the community at large.

The unacknowledged problem, the insurmountable obstacle, in many discussions of what it means to be a Catholic disciple of Jesus in the world today is that the bishops have lost any credibility at all, as authoritative teachers whose teaching authority points to discipleship of Jesus as the heart and soul of Catholic life.  Not some credibility.  Not a bit of credibility.  Not considerable credibility.

The bishops have lost any credibility at all as teachers, for increasing numbers of Catholics at this point in history, and for many people of good will outside the church.  They have lost and continue to lose credibility as teachers because what they have done and continue to do in the abuse crisis nullifies their role as apostolic authorities in the Christian tradition.  It completely obliterates their ability to proclaim the gospel effectively, as followers of Jesus walking with Jesus to Calvary and resurrection.

If the bishops want to regain credibility as teachers within the church, they must relearn what it means to be disciples of Jesus.  Like Peter, who denied Jesus and abandoned him during his final days of anguish, but who relearned what it meant to follow Jesus by listening to the faithful women who remained with Jesus through his death and were the first witnesses to his resurrection, the bishops need to seek out faithful, exemplary disciples within the community at large, and sit at their feet.

The bishops need to be taught again to be disciples precisely by those whose voices they now most frequently seek to silence and to declare inauthentically Catholic.  If the bishops want to regain credibility as teachers of the Catholic tradition, they will sit at the feet of the faithful women whom they have recently subjected to a humiliating, unwarranted investigation centered on unfounded claims that those women have wavered in their fidelity to the Catholic tradition.  That they have wavered in their fidelity to the great tradition of discipleship that norms every other tradition--including the tradition of the teaching authority of the bishops as foundational--within the Catholic tradition.

If the bishops want to relearn what it means to be disciples of Jesus in a way that will permit them to regain any credibility at all as authoritative teachers within the Catholic tradition, they will sit at the feet of Elizabeth Johnson and learn from her theology something of what it means to be a credible follower of Jesus within the Catholic tradition at this point in history.  To be a credible follower of Jesus walking the way to Calvary and resurrection within the world.

If the Catholic church is going to negotiate its current crisis successfully--the most serious crisis the church has confronted from the Reformation until the present--its pastoral leaders are going to have to undergo a profound experience of palpable conversion that is manifested in such public ways that this experience of conversion becomes a teaching moment for the community at large.  That conversion will depend on the bishops' transparent willingness to listen to the Spirit speaking within the community itself--and, in particular, through those within the community whose lives as disciples of Jesus provide exemplary witness about what it means to be a faithful Catholic follower of Jesus at this point in history.

And it will depend as well on the bishops' willingness to refrain from attacking and humiliating various groups within the Catholic community who now function as convenient scapegoats for the bishops' total loss of credibility as doctrinal and moral teachers--notably, women and those who are gay and lesbian.  It will depend absolutely on the bishops' willingness both to apologize to and to sit at the feet of and learn from survivors of clerical sexual abuse, who have, up to now, been treated with shocking indignity almost uniformly by Catholic bishops around the world.

When the bishops begin to appear again to be credible witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, if they begin to appear again as credible disciples of Jesus walking the way of the cross with him in the world, then they might regain some authority as teachers of the Catholic tradition.  Until that happens, however, many Catholics will continue to look elsewhere for guidance about what it means to be authentically Catholic in the 21st century.  And they will be doing so not because they are abandoning the Catholic tradition or turning their back on it, but precisely because they care about its authenticity and want to find within some spiritual tradition resources to live the call that entered their lives through the Catholic community but which the moral example provided by the bishops now makes opaque--the call to live as faithful followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

Resources to which the bishops' ever shriller assertions of authority at a moment in which their own behavior has repeatedly undermined their claim to authority cannot any longer point . . . .  Not, that is, without a publicly and repeatedly demonstrated reframing of episcopal lives and teaching around what is central in the Christian narrative: discipleship of a Lord whose vocational path led to Calvary and then resurrection.  And who knelt and washed his disciples' feet as a prelude to his final passion . . . .

The graphic is Italian Renaissance artist Masaccio's depiction of the crucifixion for the chapel of Santa Marina del Carmine in Pisa.

No comments: